Monday, November 14, 2011

Bonus Q&A with John Wesley Harding

Here are more excerpts from my interview with John Wesley Harding... 

Q: We’ve spoken two previous times on the phone – back in 1991 for your second album, 'The Name Above the Title' and in 1996 for 'New Deal.'
I totally recognized your name.

Q: How was the recording process this time around for 'The Sound of His Own Voice?'
We recorded backing tracks for three days and overdubbed for two. Then I left. So it was very quick and joyful and as much fun as I’ve ever had in the studio. We were having such a nice, good time that everybody kind of separately said, ‘let’s go on the road if we can.’ Luckily, the album didn’t come out before the Decemberists finished all their various commitments. The timing was perfect.

Q: The cover art finds you surrounded by megaphones. Paired with the album title, was that a nod to the old RCA Records mascot Nipper, who looked into a gramophone and the phrase ‘his master’s voice’ was below it?
To be very honest, I cannot give away too many secrets about the cover. The photograph was taken by one of my favorite photographers, Jamie Baldridge. I have his prints in my front room. I got in touch, told him I was a huge fan and actually bought some prints from him. I said I was a musician and ‘would you consider doing my next album cover?’ He said, ‘I will give you a Cadillac of a cover.’ His exact words. Then asked me to send him a picture of myself sitting down in a chair with light in a particular direction and position. Then he gave me back that cover. He said, ‘Do you like the idea?’ But I love his work, so I never going to say no.

Q: With a larger number of people bypassing CD purchases in favor of digital downloads nowadays, does coming up with an album cover design have as much meaning as it used to?
I totally believe – and I’m not the only person, as you can see by the amount of vinyl that’s on sale now – people may not have record players and they still like buying the vinyl. In a sense, I think people might buy vinyl as a nice way of getting the digital download. Why have a CD if you can get a digital download anyway? CDs are so horrible. Nobody wants them lying around and nobody likes looking at them.

The vinyl version of my new album looks amazing. There’s a beautiful gatefold and the inside is designed with all these black and white photos like [Dylan’s] ‘Blonde on Blonde.’ I really recommend you take a look at it because to me it’s the most beautiful artifact that’s ever represented my work. Part of that is because I believe the way to counter the non material reality of the object – it being a digital file that has no presence except on your computer – the way to take that back and turn it to your advantage is to make things than are really beautiful...we now, again, for the first time, appreciate the intrinsic beauty of something that is beautiful. A digital file is nothing but numbers. It’s the degraded version of what it should be.

You take a lot of care making an album, but if people are listening to them on MP3, there are details they’re missing out on. I’m no Neil Young when it comes to this or an audiophile heavyweight, but I can hear the difference between an MP3 and a proper file of music. To me, the vinyl sounds and looks beautiful when you’re holding it. I could quite see somebody buying it just to have that heavy thing in their hands as music should look and sound. I was very excited about it coming out on vinyl and wanted it to look fantastic. I haven’t put out a record on vinyl since 1991 and that only came out in Germany, so I wanted people to feel like a million dollars when they held it. Also, I wanted the cover to be so high gloss that the moment you put your fingers on it, it was ruined. Just like The Doors’ ‘Soft Parade’ cover. I remember getting that and touching it and it was just ruined.

Q: Are you prepared for the onslaught of questions about Starbucks, since you wrote a song about it?
People always ask me ‘what does that mean?’ I’ve tried to put it in the most poetic way that I can. People used to always use to ask about a line in the song “Triumph of Trash” on ‘New Deal’: ‘trash needs nostalgia to breathe.’ So many people would come up and ask me about that line, like it’s very mysterious. But it’s exactly what it says on the bottle.

Q: You have a great roster of guest musicians on the album. How did you lure them all in the studio?
This album is full of people from throughout the length of my career who I know some very well, some barely at all. Steve Berlin does the horns; I used to live next door to him on Vashon Island in Seattle. Before that, he produced ‘Why We Fight.’ Laura Viers is a recent friend; she’s a singer and the wife of Tucker Martine, who mixed the record. She was handily placed to do those backing vocals for me. Peter Buck, I think was the first person whose house I stayed in America in Athens in 1990. In fact, my first solo headlining gig was in Athens at the 40 Watt. Scott McCaughey came up to me in a park in Seattle where I was playing on the ‘Why We Fight’ tour and said, ‘I’m in a band called the Young Fresh Fellows. I love your band; let’s talk.' The whole album is just full of good friendships.         

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